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This essay will focus on the importance of increasing suffering-focused values in other people, and possible avenues to effectively perform such value shifting. 

Specifically, suffering-focused values, in this paper, refers to a combination of a person's concerns for the suffering of other sentient beings, or even future suffering in that person's own life, as well as a motivation to act to reduce or prevent that suffering. The concern can be based in emotion, such as when empathizing to a degree that one feels significant sadness or anxiety about another sentient being's negative situation. It could also be based in detached, rational thought, if a person has a high-level understanding that suffering is basically the definition of a "bad" thing, and therefore logically it should be reduced as much as possible. 

Why is it important to focus on increasing and spreading suffering-focused values? It is evident that some people appear to have more suffering-focused values than others. There are people who spend their whole lives fighting to prevent the suffering of millions of factory farmed animals, people who donate a kidney to a complete stranger in need, people who give some of their money to a homeless person on the side of the road. There are people who will pass the homeless person and ignore them. Continuing along the spectrum, there are people with psychopathy who have little or no concern for anyone else's suffering. And there are people who exhibit sadism, meaning they find pleasure in others' suffering, and may in some sense have negative "concern" for others' suffering. 

One can try to estimate how much suffering has been and will be prevented by the acts of someone nearer the high-concern end of the spectrum. How many dozens, hundreds, or thousands of animals have been spared a life of pain in a factory farm because of a person protesting poor farm conditions, creating petitions to change conditions, or simply boycotting the products from factory farms? Or how many starving Africans have been fed by volunteers who travel to developing countries to volunteer? 

Then consider the population as a whole, where the average person is unlikely to be making nearly as much difference in farm conditions, human starvation, or any other source of extreme suffering. About a third of households in the United States do not donate to charity. If only considering those households that made over 162,501 dollars per year, the average donation was only 3% of their income. Only a quarter of the US population volunteers. (philanthropyrountable.org) Around nine out of ten Americans eat meat, with about 99% of farm animals being factory farmed. (Berg, sentienceinstitute.org) 

There is a large amount of suffering that can be prevented where the only limiting factor is peoples' willingness and opportunity to do so. 

As a way forward in trying to increase suffering-focused values in others, most of my recommendations come down to further brainstorming and research of new ideas. But some relatively concrete thoughts follow. 

Meditation could possibly be an effective tool to increase suffering-focused values. Studies have shown that meditation increases a person's willingness to help those who are suffering. (Condon, Weng) There are many different styles of meditation, and it could be beneficial to compare relative effectiveness between them in this domain. 

Research into other indirect (meaning not directly targeting the brain, such as with chemicals) interventions could be done by searching the literature for studies, or funding new studies. For example, it has been shown that reading fiction leads to increases in empathy. (Mar) It is thus not farfetched to me that specifically reading fiction where the characters are suffering greatly may possibly lead to the reader experiencing increased suffering-focused values. Similarly, watching movies where the characters suffer may have a similar effect, as may reading and watching non-fiction accounts of actual extreme suffering, such as a documentary about the unbearable pain of cluster headaches. 

Potentially, pursuing knowledge of the specific differences in neural chemistry between those with high levels of suffering-focused values and those with low levels may be instrumental in creating new interventions, both indirect, like meditation, and direct, such as research into chemicals which may increase these values, or discovering chemicals and environmental factors people are already exposed to which increase or decrease suffering focused-values. Note that I would consider the use of new drugs a poor intervention in the near future, considering knowledge of the brain is still very limited, and massive risks arise when trying to change brain chemistry. 

It is plausible that people who exhibit characteristics of suffering-focused values can spread the values to others just by being role models. Thus it may be a good idea to try to promote people with such values to positions where they are seen by many others, such as leaders of companies/governments, or celebrities. For example, resources could be used to assist with political campaigns. In the near term, research should be done to determine if value spreading through role models is effective. Apart from these people's value as role models, there would also be the benefit of them having the power to more effectively decrease suffering if they are in a position of power. 

Many people would likely be uninterested in using their time and money to increase their own suffering-focused values even if there were an effective way to do so, thus it may be wise to somehow try to "bundle" an incentive that most people will definitely want, such as money, with the side-effect of increasing their concern for others. Maybe research tying meditation and productivity (Sage) could be presented to company leadership, who could then create incentives for their employees to meditate, such as cheaper health insurance. Or research tying meditation and health costs [Stahl] could be presented to government leadership, who could mandate meditation opportunities in schools. 

Sidenote: It may be that experiencing suffering oneself is currently one of the most likely ways for a person to have increased concern for others' suffering. It would not be a good idea for many reasons to intentionally cause involuntary suffering to others to try to increase their suffering-focused values. But with psychiatry and medical science continually advancing, the world may reach a point where virtually everyone who potentially has the power to help others never actually experiences any extreme suffering themselves. This may lead to a large increase in the world's total suffering due to a dearth of concern. There may even be a point of no return, where everyone in power "forgets" what it is to suffer, and nothing done simply for the sake of helping the worst off happens anymore. Thus, finding alternate methods to increase suffering-focused values may be an urgent need. 

The space for potential good that can be done, considering the observed high levels of suffering-focused values in some humans, and the average person's levels, makes the high level intervention of "spreading and increasing suffering-focused values" worth pursuing. Some ideas for targeted interventions have been presented, and further research may produce many more possible interventions. 

The preceding was a (slightly modified) essay I wrote for an application for the Center for Reducing Suffering. I didn't get the job, but I'm glad I wrote it. I saw a post by Christoph Hartmann recently which has a very similar theme, and it inspired me to post my essay.

My dream would be to pursue this type of work in some capacity. I don't have experience in EA work, but I want to do what I can to prevent extreme suffering in the universe. Increasing empathy and suffering-focused values seems like a very good option, as I think they are maybe the most fundamental ingredients in suffering prevention. Basically, interventions against suffering can only happen if people want them to happen. And I look around the world and see a lot of people that don't care. I even wish I cared more than I do. Humans are intelligent and capable on a level that is scary, and each of those non-caring people has the potential to offer a lot of that capability towards suffering prevention if they somehow were instilled with the desire and means to do so.


Berg, Jennifer, and Chris Jackson. "Nearly Nine in Ten Americans Consume Meat as Part of Their Diet." Ipsos, 12 May 2021. Buchholz, Katharina. "Infographic: Eating Meat Is the Norm Almost Everywhere." Statista Infographics, 20 May 2021, www.statista.com/chart/24899/meat-consumption-by-country/

Condon, Paul, et al. "Meditation Increases Compassionate Responses to Suffering." Psychological Science, vol. 24, no. 10, 1 Oct. 2013, pp. 2125-2127, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23965376, https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797613485603

Mar, Raymond A., et al. "Bookworms versus Nerds: Exposure to Fiction versus Non-Fiction, Divergent Associations with Social Ability, and the Simulation of Fictional Social Worlds." Journal of Research in Personality, vol. 40, no. 5, Oct. 2006, pp. 694-712, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S009265660500053X, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrp.2005.08.002

Sage, Laura. "Council Post: Six Proven Benefits of Meditation in the Workplace." Forbes, www.forbes.com/sites/forbesbusinesscouncil/2020/08/03/six-proven-benefits-of-meditation-inthe-workplace/?sh=56976500fa88. Accessed 24 June 2023. 

Stahl, James E., et al. "Relaxation Response and Resiliency Training and Its Effect on Healthcare Resource Utilization." PLOS ONE, vol. 10, no. 10, 13 Oct. 2015, p. e0140212, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0140212

"Statistics on U.S. Generosity." Philanthropy Roundtable, www.philanthropyroundtable.org/almanac/statistics-on-u-s-generosity/

"US Factory Farming Estimates." Sentience Institute, 2019, www.sentienceinstitute.org/us-factoryfarming-estimates

Weng, Helen Y., et al. "Compassion Training Alters Altruism and Neural Responses to Suffering." Psychological Science, vol. 24, no. 7, 21 May 2013, pp. 1171-1180, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3713090/, https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797612469537.





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